WASHINGTON – Republican and Democratic congressional leaders both forecast a change in President Bush's Iraq war policy as the president prepared to sign legislation Friday providing funds for military operations through Sept. 30.
"I think the president's policy is going to begin to unravel now," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who described the just-passed measure as a disappointment because it did not force an end to U.S. participation in the conflict.
At a separate news conference, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell predicted a change, and said Bush would show the way.
"I think the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall and I think the president is going to lead it," he said.
McConnell said he expects Bush announce his intentions on his own timetable.
The legislation that cleared Congress late Thursday night marked the end of a struggle in which Bush rejected an earlier bill because it contained a troop withdrawal timetable.
The White House said it expected to receive the replacement measure Friday afternoon and that Bush would sign it — privately, with no fanfare other than a written announcement — as soon as it arrived from Capitol Hill.
"This effort shows what can happen when people work together to get a good bill that doesn't have timetables or tell the military how to do its job," Bush said after a visit to wounded troops at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. "It also sends a clear signal to the Iraqis that there's expectations" for them to make progress.
McConnell emphasized the same point. "We've given the Iraqi government an opportunity here to have a normal country. And so far, they've been a great disappointment to members of the Senate on both sides," he said, criticizing Iraqis' failure to take more steps toward a political settlement.
Democrats say the drive to bring U.S. troops home is far from over.
"We're going to keep coming back and coming back," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic caucus.
The war spending bill provides some $95 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and billions in domestic projects, including more than $6 billion for hurricane relief. The House voted 280-142 to pass the bill, followed by a 80-14 vote in the Senate.
Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both voted against the bill.
"I fully support our troops" but the measure "fails to compel the president to give our troops a new strategy in Iraq," said Clinton, D-N.Y.
"Enough is enough," Obama, an Illinois senator, declared, adding that Bush should not get "a blank check to continue down this same, disastrous path."
Their votes continued a shift in position for the two presidential hopefuls, both of whom began the year shunning a deadline for a troop withdrawal.
Sen. John McCain, a GOP presidential contender, said the two Democrats were embracing a "policy of surrender."
"This vote may win favor with MoveOn and liberal primary voters, but it's the equivalent of waving a white flag to al-Qaida," said McCain, R-Ariz. MoveOn.org is a grass-roots anti-war group that rose to prominence in last year's elections.
Thursday's legislative action capped weeks of negotiations with the White House, which agreed to accept some $17 billion more than Bush had requested as long as there were no restrictions on the military campaign.
"If all funding bills are going to be this partisan and contentious, it will be a very long year," said McConnell.
In the months ahead, lawmakers will vote repeatedly on whether U.S. troops should stay and whether Bush has the authority to continue the war. The Democratic strategy is intended to ratchet up pressure on the president, as well as on moderate Republicans who have grown tired of defending Bush administration policy in a deeply unpopular war.
The Senate will go first when it considers a defense policy bill authorizing $649 billion in military spending in 2008. The proposed bill, approved this week by the Senate Armed Services Committee, cut $12 billion from the administration's $142 billion war-related request to fund other programs, including an increase in the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.
The most critical votes on the war are likely to be cast in September when the House and Senate debate war funding for 2008. The September votes likely will come after Iraq war commander Gen. David Petraeus tells Congress whether Bush's troop buildup plan is working. Also due by September is an independent assessment of progress made by the Iraqi government.
The U.S. has spent more than $300 billion on Iraq military operations so far, according to the congressional Government Accountability Office.